The cancer has taken its toll. It’s been four long years and over 30 doctors, and still I’m no closer to knowing a correct diagnosis or how to treat my affliction. I certainly don’t look the same anymore, which has been tough, but the hardest part of it all has been the mental strain with many tear-filled breakdowns, doubts and tough times. More than once I’ve found myself in a closed closet, curled up in a ball, crying my eyes out.
We all have our challenges and afflictions, all of them different because we are all different people. One person’s affliction is no worse than anyone else’s—they are all designed to serve some purpose. The key is not to avoid them, but rather to learn from them. When I first learned of my cancer, I was one week away from the birth of my first child and it seemed so surreal to be getting the nursery ready during the day and my wife and I working on my will at night. I learned true fear during that week, which was followed by depression and anger as I couldn’t even hold my baby in my arms without putting on a full medical gown, gloves and head covering. But I would come to realize so many more fundamentally important things down the road.
One purpose for our afflictions is that God needs to get our attention. He has mine now. God also wants us to walk closer to Him and develop a greater intimacy with Him because He loves us too much to let us stagnate or backslide. So after He gets our attention, He will attempt to purge from us sins that are holding us back from living the extraordinary life He has planned for us. Mine was pride. I see that now and would never have come to this conclusion without the affliction and challenges I’ve had to go through.
I’m the fixer, the controller, the achiever. When I see a problem, I’m really good at coming up with solutions and finding the most efficient way to do something and to get something achieved. I have a gorgeous wife, a nice house and car, I make a really good living, I have two doctoral degrees, blah, blah. And I was absolutely misguided. I needed to be broken down to be able to see my pride, and I needed to learn to let go and stop trying to control things in order to see the one thing I really need: an intimate relationship with God. That intimacy could never have been achieved without God first getting my attention and then reminding me of the place where I belong: on my knees.
I had forgotten that I needed to pray every day and even when I did pray it was on the go, squeezed into my busy schedule, and I did more talking than listening. When I lost control, I found that I never really had it in the first place and that I really didn’t need it anyway. In my humility I found that the true power a Christian has is in service and submission to the will of God. God is in control, and I needed to get down on my knees and pray from the heart, with a spirit of thanksgiving, for someone else and with specifics. I needed to listen and not just dump my problems at God’s doorstep. God wasn’t just giving me problems but rather trying to teach me how to be a more mature Christian, and to get the lesson I had to use prayer time to learn and search. I needed to take the time to do it and to pray at the beginning of the day right when I wake up rather than wait and let the day distract me. And I had to pray with an expectation of guidance. God reveals Himself to us in our quiet meditations, in the promptings of the Holy Spirit, in His Bible and in our prayer time. If we don’t make time to do those things on a daily basis and to make the most of the time when we do read the Bible, meditate and pray, then we can’t grow as Christians, we can’t become the people God wants us to be and we can’t possibly live the extraordinary life God has planned for us.
Of course it’s hard. We lead busy lives with so many responsibilities, or maybe our afflictions have the better of us and we have distanced ourselves from God rather than grown closer. Maybe we have started to believe the lies the world tries to sell us about what success is and how we should be spending our time. Maybe doubt has turned into desperation and desperation into despair. I know I still freak out when the slightest thing goes wrong medically, and I still have moments where I think I’m better than someone else. That’s OK because the road of progressive sanctification is a journey where the final stop is when you stand before God. The important thing to do is ask for forgiveness from God, forgive yourself and do better the next time—to grow and mature as we learn and grow closer to God.
A great place to start is with a meaningful prayer life where every day you get down on your knees in a spirit of humility and with an expectation of guidance. During your prayer, remember to be sincere, thankful, concerned about others and specific. Pray at the beginning of the day and let it last as long as it does—all those other things in your life you think are so important aren’t. The better prayer life you have, the closer you will be to God, and the more successful your life will be regardless of what happens in it.
Carl lives in Atlanta with his wife of nine years and his baby daughter Ave, age 2. He teaches history at the college level.